Are Three Parents a Crowd? Understanding California’s 3rd Parent Law

California’s Three Parent Law: How might it affect you?

Most children have two parents, a mother and a father, two moms or two dads. But what about a child that has three (or more!) parents?

What is a three parent family?

A three – or more – parent family might seem wildly out there, but it’s a situation many families are facing. For example, a lesbian couple could have a child with a sperm donation from a close friend. The three adults may decide they’d all like to be involved in raising the child. How can the law protect this type of family structure?

California’s 3rd parent law

Often referred to as the “3rd parent law,” California Senate Bill No. 274 provides protection for children and families by recognizing legal rights and responsibilities of two or more adults in a child’s life. The law is actually even more expansive than just a “3rd parent law,” as it places no limits on the number of parents a child can have. In drafting this new law, the California legislature has said the following: “Most children have two parents, but in rare cases, children have more than two people who are that child’s parent in every way. Separating a child from a parent has a devastating psychological and emotional impact on the child, and courts must have the power to protect children from this harm.”
However, the law does not expand parenting rights for people who aren’t already a parent of the child, which makes it unlikely that there would be more than three parents involved. For example, the law does not expand parental rights for grandparents or siblings – rather, it allows parenthood only for people who meet the legal definition of a parent under California law. [legal parenthood or ‘presumed parent’ law is a complicated topic – not the subject of this article.]

Protection for children and families

In the example above, all three adults could decide to share legal parenting rights and responsibilities. This additional recognition provides the child with more love and support, both emotionally and financially. It provides that all of the adults involved in raising the child have legal protection for their parent-child bond.
For families who have or want more than two legal parents, this law is a great thing: it provides legal recognition for adults who are acting as parents in every other way and helps protect non-traditional family structures. In addition to legal recognition of the adults involved, the 3rd parent law protects the children involved by ensuring their relationships with their parents are seen as valid, important, and worth protecting.

The Potential Downside

However, the 3rd parent law also leaves some questions unanswered: does it allow a non-intended parent to seek legal recognition and assert legal parental rights? For example, if a couple uses a sperm donor but intends to only have two parents, does this law permit the sperm donor to seek parenting rights over the objections of the couple?
As you can imagine, this scenario would be a nightmare for many families. You don’t need or want additional adults interfering in your child’s life or making decisions about their education, health care, or future. But under the specific phrasing of the 3rd parent law, an unintended parent could claim parental rights, even if a child already has two committed parents.

When could a non-intended parent assert legal rights?

Picture a man and a woman, a married couple who are ready to have children, but have discovered the husband is infertile. After much discussion, they decide to use a sperm donor to conceive a child. However, they’re uncomfortable with the idea of an unknown donor – they want their donor to be someone familiar to them, so they ask a close friend if he’d be willing to donate sperm. The friend agrees, and the husband and wife use the sperm provided by the friend to impregnate the woman without the assistance of a doctor and with no written or oral agreement about parenting (see our blog post “Who’s Your Daddy?” for more information on the exciting recent changes in assisted reproduction laws). The baby is born, and the sperm donating friend comes over for dinner often and plays with the child. Or, the donating friend becomes a love interest of one of wife in this example? What would happen if the friend – the biological father – decides he wants to get more involved as a legal parent and pursues a paternity judgement in the courts?
Does the law allow a non-intended parent to seek parentage?
The 3rd parent law does not require a child to have more than two parents and does not automatically create more than two parents. Instead, the law allows a court to find that a child may have more than two parents. If there is an existing parent-child bond with more than two people, the court may find a child has three parents even over the objections of two of the parents.

How can families protect against non-intended parents?

The law is intended to protect families and children, not increase stress and court battles. The effects of the law are not yet settled, and things are changing quickly. There can be costs to the rights of existing parents that are incurred by recognizing additional ones. There are also potentially costs to children, whose attachments to adults may be stretched too thin by the legal recognition of additional parents. Parents can protect against possible 3rd parent challenges by setting up binding legal agreements between involved adults before the child’s birth. If parents have not prepared an agreement or find themselves in court litigating these issues, they should direct their judge to the long history of case and statutory law focusing on the best interests and well being of the child. Moreover, there may be a good legal challenge to the third party asserting parentage to begin with.

If you have any concerns about how the 3rd parent law might affect you and your family, we recommend that you consult a Certified Family Law Specialist.

**Please note that this blog pertains to existing California law and is meant for informational purposes only. Please do not make decisions that will affect your future based on things you’ve read on our website. Instead, consult with a Certified Family Law Specialist – It doesn’t have to be us, but be sure to seek out sound legal advice that pertains specifically to the facts of your case.

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